A special friend, one of our summer co-workers, died last weekend after contracting COVID-19.
There’s sadness. Pain. Regret.
This did not have to happen, and we must do something about it. We are 45 days from the general election and most states are just a few weeks from being able to vote early. We must register and vote for the hundreds of thousands of people who needlessly suffer every year.
You see, my anger is not just because our right-wing politicians in Washington and many state capitals could not bring themselves to choose lives and health over the economy while failing to mount a defense against COVID-19. The long ongoing support of profit over people is really what took down my friend.
Let me explain chronologically.
He was several years older than we are and, by all measures, should have been able to retire. Leah and I, for example, can exist with our retirement checks; we rely on our summer jobs to finance travel. Our friend never was able to do that. He worked the past several summers at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In the winters, he pulled his RV to work in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas or Death Valley in California, though he was able to work this past winter at Rushmore.
More than once, he told me he couldn’t afford to not work. I encouraged him to go to Hawaii to visit a close friend there, but he said it was out of the question.
He explained to Leah once that he was continually paying off debts incurred during the death of his wife more than 15 years ago.
That is a condemnation of our society and where it places emphasis.
It is why affordable, quality health care is a major part of what Joe Biden and other Democrats at every level are trying to accomplish.
It should not matter how rich you are if you need treatment for cancer. Neither you nor your family should have to work the rest of their days because you needed heart surgery. And, to head off those and other medical problems, everyone should be able to maintain a health-monitoring program to prevent serious results.
My friend having to work to pay off these medical bills meant he did not have the option my wife and I had, in light of the COVID infestation, to skip work this summer. We decided it wasn’t worth it to us to take the increased chance of coming down with the coronavirus since we’re both considered members of the at-risk population.
He could not take that break. Or he felt as if he could not.
It’s not that he wasn’t at-risk himself. He was older than me and had heart issues. He did not need to be working around people who could pass on a killer disease, selfish individuals who thought it more important they should not be required to wear a mask than protecting others.
But don’t leap to the assumption he was fragile, that he was living at death’s door. As I said, he worked most of the year and traveled across numerous states between jobs, pulling his beat-up fifth-wheel RV with his overworked pickup truck, accompanied by his beloved cat. On his days off, he often headed out into the Black Hills to walk a trail, often by himself.
One month before he told me he had been diagnosed with COVID, he related the story of hiking in Custer State Park and witnessing a helicopter drawing water from a lake to fight a wildfire.
Since we were not there this summer, he occasionally updated me on what was going on.
On March 10, he messaged, “well there’s finally a case in Pennington county. I’m kind of glad its finally started so it can get over.”
That was a typical message from him. He never wasted time worrying about spelling or grammar, certainly not punctuation, when texting. He didn’t talk that way, though, except for non sequiturs that always left me believing he was speaking at a level I did not understand.
After the memorial reopened, he gave me on June 5 a glimpse at what we were missing, including, “going ok only 10% of people have masks nobody knows how to sneeze or cough.”
A few weeks later, he wrote sarcastically, “come to the mountain. mingle with people from all over. watch that guy cough his way thru the store or sneeze on those magnets no masks needed!”
Then, on July 25, after I pressed him to explain a comment I did not understand, he replied, “yes the plague of the world has strucked at me!” I had to force him to confirm he was talking about COVID.
He was soon hospitalized locally and then spent some time at a VA hospital going through some kind of rehab. I prodded a bit for updates, trying to not pressure him too much.
On Aug. 9, we finally traded a few messages, some more clear than others, and I sent him this: “I’ve been resisting the desire to write you because I’ve not known if you’re up to it, etc. Not to get mushy, but you’re one of our ‘most specialist’ friends and we’re frustrated being stuck down here. Do know our prayers are traveling, though.”
“i feel it and the same,” he replied. “i know youve been hurting all year down there. turns out the world is not enough.” Another comment I wasn’t sure how to interpret.
Five days later, he told me he was on oxygen but breathing OK. I asked a follow-up question that he answered at 3:42 p.m. on Aug. 14: “no just weakness hope dont need 02,” his final message to me.
He wasn’t online much after that, not showing up active on his Facebook Messenger, not responding to my messages. On Sept. 1, I sent, “Checking in … haven’t heard from you in a while. How are things going?” That message never showed as “delivered,” meaning, I believe, that his phone wasn’t even turned on.
Meet my friend
If you haven’t noticed, I’m not using my friend’s name because, of course, I never thought I’d be writing this and certainly never asked for his approval. Any mutual friends reading this, I ask you to not comment with his name.
For the majority of you, who did not know him, allow me to introduce you.
He loved jokes and turning clever phrases.
Even during the pandemic. He sent me a graphic in late March that read, “My body has absorbed so much soap and disinfectant lately, that when I pee it cleans the toilet.”
Another in April: “The threat from piranhas and quicksand may have been exaggerated when we were kids, but we really underestimated cooties.”
He was also a dispenser of information. He loved coming up with the background story of something such as the word hangover.
Hundreds of times, during the 3.5 summers I worked with him at Mount Rushmore, I would drive him from the RV park in Keystone to the concession at the memorial. It was his practice – and obviously had been before I knew him – to share “words of wisdom” with others in the van during the ride up the mountain.
Some were simply informative, but most were funny. Some were groaners, some were a tad risqué and, rarely, one would be a flop, but they got those few in the van off to work on the right foot.
He pretty much always emitted music, usually in the form of a whistle. I would be at work in the gift shop warehouse and hear someone whistling a tune and know he was in the building. It also seemed impossible for him to walk down the concourse without whistling or sometimes singing.
One last thing.
A veteran, our friend loved his country and Mount Rushmore.
Because he had a little trouble getting in and out of the van, it was understood by his RV park neighbors that he would get the front seat.
Therefore, every morning as I drove him to work, he would catch one of the early views of the sculpture and give the presidents a silent salute.
I am certain my friend would not want this to be all about him. Neither do I.
More than 6.7 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 and some 200,000 have died. Globally, those numbers are 30.4 million cases and more than 950,000 deaths.
Each of those deaths affects many others.
This is only one story.